An American lynching: the Leo Max Frank Affair

Ninety years ago, some of Marietta''s leading citizens gathered to hang a man, Leo Frank, a Jewish superintendent of an Atlanta pencil factory… [He was] murdered on a farm belonging to former Cobb County sheriff William Frey.”
Introduction: The trial and murder of Leo Frank stands in stark contrast to the outcomes of those other contemporaneous antisemitic outrages, the “trials” of Menahem Beilis and Alfred Dreyfus. In the end Russia and France, however reluctantly, recanted and their victims survived. Not so the American Jew. This incident illustrates the depth of antisemitism present in the United States for decades preceding the First World War, a level that only intensified after that war, and continued to do so through the Second World War and beyond. It was this same antipathy towards Jews, endemic to Western culture, that resulted in America violating its long tradition of refuge as last resort, at least when it came to Europe’s Jews fleeing the Holocaust.
Leo Max Frank was manager of the National Pencil Factory in Atlanta, Georgia. On the night of 27 April, 1913 the body of a thirteen year old employee was discovered in the factory basement. She had been raped and strangled.
Frank was accused of the 1913 murder of Mary Phagan, a former Mariettan who worked at the National Pencil Factory in Atlanta. Historians [and some police investigators at the time] believe that the state''s main witness, Jim Conley, a janitor at the factory, murdered the 13-year-old girl.”
As it turned out John Conley, “who was arrested when he was seen washing red [described as “blood”] stains from a shirt,” became the state’s main witness. Conley, who had an arrest record involving alcohol and violence, “later gave at least four contradictory affidavits explaining how he had helped Frank dispose of the body.”At one point he testified to being illiterate, a claim later contradicted when he asserted that Leo Frank had ordered him to write two notes, as if by the girl, as she lay dying. Conley also claimed that Frank paid him $200 for helping move the body but, but when asked by the police where the money was he claimed Frank had taken it back.
One of the two murder notes found near the body. (Wikipedia)
Tom Watson, publisher of the Jeffersonian newspaper, [see earlier submission] was instrumental in creating the atmosphere of antisemitism that would shape public outrage against Frank. He made cash payment to the police for access to police evidence, was accused of having removed evidence he felt favored Frank.
The grand jury investigating the case indicted Frank in the death of Mary Phagan on 24 May, 1913. On 28 May the pencil factory foreman was reported by the newspaper The Georgian to have said that he believed Conley "strangled Mary Phagan while about half drunk.” Two other witnesses against Conley were also not called to testify.
Why the grand jury chose not to pursue Conley, is not known. What is known is that following the indictment several members of the panel expressed doubts regarding Frank’s guilt, felt Conley should have been the one indicted.
Lucille and Leo Frank at Frank''s trial. (Wikipedia)
Amidst controversy surrounding the police investigation, the manipulation and even disappearance of evidence; with accusations of witness badgering and even coaching by the police and prosecution, the trial ended on 26 August, 1913. Frank was convicted in the murder. Presenting evidence of jury tampering and intimidation a mistrial was demanded. And denied. Frank’s conviction was greeted with jubilation in the street.
William Manning Smith, the attorney who initially defended Conley, reversed his position in 1914 after concluding that his own client was the guilty party.”
Appeals to both the Georgia and US Supreme Courts were unsuccessful.
Tom Watson, who in 1920 would represent Georgia in the US Senate, had little patience for the “legal wrangling” following Frank’s conviction. “If Frank''s rich connections [a not subtle reference to the Jews] keep on lying about this case, SOMETHING BAD WILL HAPPEN!” But out of public view, “Watson let it be known to [Governor] Slaton that he would throw his support behind a Senate bid if only the governor would let Frank hang.”
Days before leaving office the governor, citing inconsistencies in evidence, commuted Frank''s sentence to life in prison. Forty years later the governor would recall that he was convinced following the trial of Frank’s innocence and assumed “[it] would eventually be fully established and he would be set free”.
Responding to the governor’s decision Watson led a group of Georgia’s finest citizens to the prison, drove Frank 240 miles to , “A site at Frey''s Gin, two miles east of Marietta [Mary Phagan’s home], had been prepared, complete with a rope and table supplied by former Sheriff William Frey. The following morning the self-styled “Knights of Mary Phagan” lynched Leo Frank
The lynching of Leo Frank. The man on the far right in the straw hat is Newton A. Morris, a superior court judge. (Wikipedia)
The lynch party was not a drunken polyglot of street hooligans in a rage. Frank’s murders consisted of 26 cool and calculating members of the professions, the cream of Atlanta’s elite. Among these luminaries were: former governor Joseph Mackey Brown; Superior Court Judge Newton Morris (standing near the hanging body of Leo Frank, above); Eugene Herbert Clay, son of U.S. senator Alexander S. Clay, and himself the former mayor of Marietta; John Tucker Dorsey, a lawyer and state legislator (and solicitor general for the Blue Ridge Circuit who would have been responsible for prosecuting the lynchers, had any been indicted!).
Following the lynching a festive atmosphere prevailed, and crowds searched the site for souvenirs… A short time after the lynching of Leo Frank, thirty-three members of the group that called itself the Knights of Mary Phagan gathered on a mountaintop near Atlanta and formed the new Ku Klux Klan of Georgia.”
“On March 11, 1986, the Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles granted Frank a pardon, citing the state''s failure to protect him or prosecute his killers. But neither did they exonerate him:
Without attempting to address the question of guilt or innocence, and in recognition of the State''s failure to protect the person of Leo M. Frank and thereby preserve his opportunity for continued legal appeal of his conviction, and in recognition of the State''s failure to bring his killers to justice, and as an effort to heal old wounds, the State Board of Pardons and Paroles, in compliance with its Constitutional and statutory authority, hereby grants to Leo M. Frank a Pardon.
Georgia has yet to admit to Frank’s wrongful conviction, responsibility for its miscarriage of justice.
The names of Frank''s murderers were well-known locally but were not made public until January 7, 2000, when Stephen Goldfarb, an Atlanta librarian and former history professor, published a list on his website. The Washington Post writes that it includes several prominent citizens—a former governor, the son of a senator, a Methodist minister, a state legislator, and a former state Superior Court judge—their names matching those on Marietta''s street signs, office buildings, shopping centers, and law offices today.”
Recent writings in this Series:
4. Emancipation/Reaction: Antisemitism turns political